Earlier today I was attacked by a group of teens at the intersection of Guilford and Lanvale. They unsuccessfully tried to steal my $100 bike. They did manage to land a few punches and throw me down as I was trying to escape, but some residents of the 1700 block of Guilford stepped in during the scene and helped chase them off before things got bad. Aside from a few scrapes and black eye, I’m fine. The police tried to chase the teens down in Greenmount West, but they escaped through an alley.
Having read about cycling attacks like these in Baltimore but never having been a victim of one, I thought I knew how I’d handle it. I thought I’d just outrun the attackers. Wrong. Unless you’re going down hill or already have some major speed, they will block your escape routes and grab any part of your bike or clothing to try to bring you down. I also thought that once they got the bike, they’d just grab it and run. The teens who attacked me, however, wanted to inflict some pain. Trying to get the bike was just a bonus. If there’s no escape route, like in my case, I will say making a commotion, looking pissed off (and not scared), and shouting gets people’s attention and discourages the attackers. Doing these things probably helped in my case. Criminals and those willing to inflict harm on others are often cowards who operate in dark, unseen places. The more attention you’re able to bring to the situation, the more likely the assailants will run.
If you’re cycling on Guilford, which is probably the best north/south route in the city, this post isn’t meant to freak you out, but to make you aware. Cycling 2 or more is best, but alone at night is still iffy. With new rehabs being completed, fewer vacant rowhomes and more “eyes on the street” in Greenmount West and Station North, I hope cycling assaults become less common in this area, and hopefully my story becomes an isolated incident in the future.
***Update: Thanks to Baltimore Velo, Baltimore Brew, BmoreBikes, and BikeMore for getting the word out. This wasn’t an isolated incident, and there are reports of similar cycling assaults on Charles Street between North Ave. and 25th St.
While I was recuperating from my fall this winter, I spent a lot of time reading about international development and public health. “Poor Economics” by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo caught my attention because it makes an empathic case for understanding the cycles of disease and poverty, and explains how small, incremental changes can have huge benefits for vulnerable populations. On a case study of Ugandan school system corruption, for example, embezzlement by district officials was reduced substantially by publishing school financial information in the papers. Once the information was public and officials were held accountable, corruption was reduced and schools received most of the money owed to them.
The example above implies that sometimes systems and institutions designed to provide public services fail, and when they do, work-arounds are needed. Banerjee and Duflo site the three “I”s as the primary problems facing well-meaning but failing institutions; ideology, ignorance, and inertia. While the authors use these concepts to explain international development studies in third world countries, they can also be used to explain many failing street design policies which have contributed to automobile domination in our public spaces, significant loss of life on our streets, and the entrenched auto-centric culture prevalent in many state and local DOTs.
I’ll explain why this is important. While places like the Netherlands have taken an active, grass roots stand against reducing road injuries and fatalities through safer road design, the U.S. has 32,000 traffic deaths a year (about a 60% higher per capita fatality rate than the Netherlands) and road design isn’t even remotely within our national public discourse. We tacitly accept these roadway injuries and fatalities as acceptable collateral damage for the privilege of owning and operating a personal vehicle in the most convenient way possible; excessively wide streets, insane roadway standards which encourage speeding and auto dominance, and alternative modes as mostly an afterthought.
Still, despite its head start and that cocoon of technology, the nation has steadily slipped behind other countries, becoming comparatively one of the most dangerous places to drive in the industrialized world. -Tanya Mohn, 2007, New York Times
Our auto culture has been dominated by passive safety measures. Bulkier cars, airbags, clear zones, wide streets; basically making our streets idiot-proof for motorists who want to drive as fast as possible. While total traffic deaths have decreased since 2005, and some passive safety devices have helped, pedestrian and cyclist deaths are on the rise. The core idea of passive traffic safety in the U.S. came from William Haddon, a medical doctor who teamed up with Senator Patrick Moynahan and Ralph Nadar in the late 1950s and 1960s to push legislation which protected drivers at all costs without influencing their behavior.
The orthodoxy of that time held that safety was about reducing accidents–educating drivers, training them, making them slow down. To Haddon, this approach made no sense. His goal was to reduce the injuries that accidents caused. In particular, he did not believe in safety measures that depended on changing the behavior of the driver, since he considered the driver unreliable, hard to educate, and prone to error. Haddon believed the best safety measures were passive. – Malcolm Gladwell, The New Yorker, 2001
Passive safety was pushed at the expense of more holistic, design-oriented solutions which protect vulnerable road users and slow traffic. The problem isn’t mandating seatbelts and air bags; they save lives. The problem is focusing on passive safety and completely ignoring design. Driving behavior must be influenced for safer streets. I still hear planners and engineers quoting Haddon, not fully understanding where the ideas came from or how the ideology has failed at creating livable streets.
So, getting back to the 3 “I”s, here’s how they apply to institutions which have influenced road design in the U.S. during the past 50 years:
- Ideology: Traditional U.S. auto culture has pushed passive safety measures as king. Haddon, Moynihan and Nadar are mostly responsible for this 50 year old ideology. It needs to end. Core ideas which have influenced road design and should now be questioned: “If the driver protected, that’s all that counts.” “If all traffic is going the same speed, no matter how fast, the road is safe.” “Clear, obstruction-less streets are best.” “Roads are designed for cars because almost everyone drives and that’s how Americans want to get around.” These ideas have been pervasive at the local, regional and national level and are outdated at best.
- Ignorance: Many people who design streets may not actually spend time on them or understand how they work, or if they do, their only perspective is through a windshield. Experience is underrated and actually getting out into the neighborhood to see how streets are used (or would like to be used by communities) fills in a lot of knowledge gaps. On a personal level, streets are one of the few remaining public places in many neighborhoods, and top down, myopic engineering standards are often inadequate at dealing with the nuances of their use by communities.
- Inertia: Most people in the U.S. as well as state and local DOTs have gotten so used to fast, wide, mono-use streets that anything which may interfere with free flowing traffic at maximum speeds is deemed sacrilege. It’s just easier to keep the gears turning instead of having to fight with the powers-that-be about why you want to convert a traffic lane into a cycletrack.
While the U.S. threw up its arms and said, “We’re not going to change driving behavior so we might as well protect the driver”, the Netherlands saw road fatalities as unacceptable and that sensible road design was a way to make streets safer for everyone, even if it means de-prioritizing the automobile through a cultural shift. The Netherlands instituted traffic calming, shared spaces, road diets, and other measures at a national level and saw results. The country refused to accept needless carnage on its streets.
While we can do the same in the U.S., it’s more of a challenge. The auto culture is more entrenched. The country more expansive and diverse. But we can start on the path of sensible road design by washing away the three “I”s mentioned above and fundamentally rethinking our roads using these 5 axioms:
- Design influences behavior. Build streets more human-scaled, and drivers and pedestrians begin to act as equals. Build streets as highways, and automobiles dominate the space.
- Speed is the enemy. This goes against almost everything traffic engineers learn in school, but agencies have to stop being afraid to inconvenience motorists. I don’t care if it’s a major arterial road that an important politician drives on everyday. Traffic speeds over 35mph are more likely to kill drivers, pedestrians and cyclists, and every single element of street design needs to communicate to drivers that speed is not acceptable.
- Material collateral damage is acceptable. Trees, curbs, narrower streets, unique intersection angles, medians and the like which slow driver speeds at the risk of low-speed collisions with a fixed object are OK. Vertical elements are good. Remember the first axiom: If drivers sense they no longer dominate the road, they will slow down and be more attentive to their surroundings. I’d rather have a driver hit a tree at 15mph than careen into a sidewalk at 35mph.
- Human collateral damage is unacceptable. This should go without saying, but given the fact that we design many of our streets like highways, sometimes I think U.S. auto culture values speed and convenience over human life.
- A street is a place first, a conduit second. As Mikael Colville-Andersen mentioned, we’ve gotten into the habit of engineering something that is, by nature, very organic and personal. Think of the street where you grew up. Do you describe it using level-of-service measurements? Vehicle miles traveled per day? Traffic delay? When you walked down the street to ask your friend to come out and play when you were 8, none of this mattered. It still doesn’t. We just pretend it does.
Not only do we get safer cities with design-oriented approaches, we get more livable streets, more transportation equity, and nicer neighborhoods. While certain cities “get” this approach and progressive agencies are doing great work, the national culture is dominated by acquiescence concerning street design – an issue that is at least partially responsible for 35,000 fatalities a year. The dialog needs to change from, “Sometimes auto accidents just happen” to “This is why accidents happen and here is how we change our streets to prevent them.”
Additional Reading: Journal of Injury Prevention: Safety in numbers: more walkers and bicyclists, safer walking and bicycling, 2003.
The New Yorker: Wrong Turn: How the fight to make America’s highways safer went off course., 2001
London Cyclist Magazine: Dutch Campaigners explain why the Netherlands is now so bike friendly
Mikael Colville-Anderson, urban mobility expert with Copenhagenize Consulting.
Engineers are brilliant problem solvers. They just need to be told which problems to solve. They are rarely leaders. They are the Can Do team. If we design a city properly, they will make it work. But as it is now, we are living in The Matrix, because traffic engineering goes unchecked and uncriticised. The 85th Percentile, for example, is a joke. An archaic study that doesn’t work. And yet it’s the first thing you learn when studying engineering. Time to change things.
This is a critical month for the Red Line. With FTA’s Record of Decision issued in February, and Governor O’Malley’s recent plan to raise $800 million a year in transportation revenue, some of which will be used as the local match for the Red Line’s federal funds, there is light at the end of the tunnel for many of the bureaucratic and financial hurdles the project has had to overcome. But it’s not a done deal yet. Solid support for the Red Line in Baltimore and Annapolis is imperative at this stage. If you support the project, write our mayor and state legislature to let them know.
If you support more transit in Baltimore, but not necessarily this project or light rail alignment, hold your nose and understand that the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. Maryland isn’t exactly a progressive state when it comes to transit, and another rail project may not come to the Baltimore region in your lifetime. The design challenges of constructing rail systems in old, post-industrial cities are many. Right of way issues, utilities, historic buildings, and narrow streets require compromises. Because you’d rather have a station two blocks west of where it’s proposed doesn’t mean the entire project should be shelved.
If you don’t support any new fixed rail transit in Baltimore, you’re on the wrong side of history. Cities across the U.S. and Europe are making enormous strides with new light rail systems, metros and streetcars and seeing substantial economic and livability gains as a result. Here’s a blurb about Tempe, Arizona’s new light rail line:
Onnie Shekerjian, Tempe councilwoman and chair of the Council Committee on Technology, Economic and Community Development, says she never anticipated a $4 billion economic boost for Tempe.
Shekerjian admits. “The light rail was a very expensive form of transportation, but the fact that it cleared up a blighted area and brought in immense economic development is something that made me very interested.”
On Denver’s FasTracks light rail system:
FasTracks funding will pay construction workers almost $1.2 billion throughout the design and construction period. The direct and induced jobs generated across the community will create another $1.7 billion in wages and salaries. In total, the jobs created by FasTracks design and construction will pump $2.9 billion into the metro Denver economy. Operations and maintenance of the FasTracks system is estimated to be $1.258 billion for the period from 2017 through 2025. A total of 2,573 jobs each year are due to the direct, indirect and induced impacts of FasTracks expenditures on operations and maintenance after build out. This will add over $150 million annually in wages and salaries to the metro Denver economy, most of which will be spent locally.
[But] the impact of FasTracks to businesses in metro Denver and the state of Colorado is far bigger than the jobs and spending created by the construction, maintenance and operation of the system. As John Huggins, Director of the Denver Office of Economic Development succinctly puts it, “FasTracks is much more than a transportation proposal – it is about building on our existing investments to make us the kind of community that can succeed and thrive in this new century.”
This isn’t even counting the economic benefits of giving more Baltimore residents alternatives to driving. In Jeff Speck’s book, Walkable City, he estimates 80% of the money spent on automobiles leaves the local economy. Not surprising. When you pay for gas, you line the pockets of wealthy Saudi Arabians. When you pay your insurance, Geico’s profits sure don’t stay in Baltimore. Sure, there are local and regional taxes, but these don’t compare to spending money on dinner in Greektown or buying a bike at Joe’s Bike Shop.
And if you weren’t paying attention the last 15 times I’ve said this, a new generation of city residents are driving less, or not at all, and value quality pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure, street life, and comprehensive transit systems way more than congestion-free, level-of-service-C-or-better streets. Traffic engineers spend an inordinate amount of time trying to shave 2 minutes off of car commutes. This does absolutely nothing to entice a new generation of residents to move to Baltimore. You can sell a city through better transit. You can’t sell it through speeding cars through neighborhood streets, even if they are designated as “arterials”.
Critics mention that our existing metro and light rail systems didn’t spur promised development. Some argue that certain neighborhoods on these lines are worse than they were 20 years ago. They’re right, but not for the reasons you think. Most of these neighborhoods began their decline before transit construction began, and both the light rail and metro never had a critical mass of riders (except on game day) because their alignments missed a lot of major trip generators while leaving huge access gaps in most parts of the city.
But the tide is changing as the economy improves, and developers now recognize the value in our existing rail transit system, incomplete as it may be. Recent transit-oriented developments like Owing Mills Metro Center, Woodberry mills, EBDI, and the Social Security Administration’s new HQ on Reisterstown Road are in construction, and a high quality transit line which connects the light rail, metro, and MARC systems with stops in booming waterfront neighborhoods takes things to a new level. Struggling neighborhoods in West Baltimore also benefit from the Red Line through reduced auto expenses and more investment, as these areas suddenly become closer to downtown through convenient transit service on a more comprehensive system. I’ll also mention that the Red Line is undergoing a more comprehensive planning process than any other capital project in the history of Baltimore.
While we’re still decades out from a DC-style metro system, the Red Line is one large step towards an interconnected transit system. In layman’s terms, when the system is built, you’ll be able to get from Bayview Medical Campus to Woodberry Kitchen with one train transfer. Or, from Canton Square to Mondawmin Mall. Or from Mt. Washington to Harbor East. Or from BWI to Edmondson Village. You get the idea.
In the mean time, MTA needs to step up its game in improving the existing system so when the Red Line is operational, there are no weak links. This means better service on every level with a focus on user experience. Little things like transparent windows on buses, renaming light rail stations so they reflect more relevant trip generators, real time arrival kiosks and innovative bus maps make life easier for all riders. These things build MTA’s user base, so when the Red Line is ready, more people in the city accept transit as a viable transportation alternative.
That’s what it comes down to; making transit a part of everyday life for a larger percentage of people. Building the Red Line is one more step in that direction.
Last month I replaced the freedom of cycling with bus schedules and being on the passenger side of cars as friends tote me around town. While riding down a hill in wintry weather, my bike slipped out from underneath me. I fell and broke my arm. 1 surgery and 2 metal rods later, I’m relearning how to hold a coffee cup with my left hand. This isn’t sympathy bait, though. The accident could have been a lot worse, the care I got was top notch, and the hospital food at Johns Hopkins was actually pretty good. The worst part of my stay was accidentally watching 5 minutes of the local news in my hospital room.
I suppose a certain amount of hubris is involved in my accident. After cycling almost every day for the past 2 years in Baltimore, I barely had a close call. I’ve been lucky, especially considering I don’t follow the rules. I weave between cars. I run red lights when it helps me get ahead of traffic and take the lane. I yell at people using their phones while driving. Admittedly, I’m not a model cyclist, but my lack of fear is what helped me get on a bike in this city to begin with.
I was wearing my helmet during the accident, though. This is non-negotiable and probably saved me a concussion or worse.
So my people tell me to be more careful when I get back on my bike this spring. Some even suggest I buy a car. I suppose after something goes wrong, the knee-jerk reaction is fear. To contract your boundaries. If you have a close call with an undertow, you avoid the beach. If a relationship doesn’t work out, you second guess the next one. You hit some crazy turbulence and cancel your European vacation next year. This kind of subtle, spiritual atrophy can go on for awhile until you’re living in a metaphysical box.
At this point, it helps to remember the original things that inspired me to take the journey. I gave up my car to improve my health, spend less time and money on a depreciating asset, and discover a city as it was meant to be seen; outside of 3000lbs of steel. To an outsider, to someone who doesn’t get it, it’s just a bike ride. To a regular rider, it’s a new way of seeing a place. As Kasey Klimes says:
On a bicycle, citizens experience their city with deep intimacy, often for the first time. For a regular motorist to take that two or three mile trip by bicycle instead is to decimate an enormous wall between them and their communities.
Yes, the bicycle is a marvelously efficient machine of transportation, but in the city it is so much more. The bicycle is new vision for the blind man. It is a thrilling tool of communication, an experiential device for the beauty and the ills of the urban context. One cannot turn a blind eye on a bicycle – they must acknowledge their community, all of it.
To someone who has experienced at least a few weeks on a bike, the effects of auto-focused land use and transportation systems on what should be people-focused places becomes painfully clear. You don’t really notice the deleterious effects of 40mph traffic on what should be 25mph streets until you become a vulnerable road user. You don’t understand how a few trees and pedestrian lights can make a walk 100% more comfortable until you walk that street. You don’t understand why being able to bike to work safely is a basic human right until, as a novice cyclist, you have to go 10 blocks out of your way to find a low-speed, bike friendly street. I didn’t start off as an anti-car zealot. Getting out of American car culture made me this way. It completely changed my personal life and professional aspirations.
And that’s too important to give up because of a few broken bones. The undertow didn’t take you all the way down. That ex may of broken your heart but not your spirit. The plane eventually landed safely. I’ll see you on the streets this spring.
While we wait for the Super Block, a new arena, and a handful of other big projects which promise to change the face of Baltimore, here are a few smaller things we can do right now to make people say, “Hey, this place is alright”.
Low Cost Transit Improvements
Eric Hatch’s ideas are gold, so I don’t need to repeat them here. I especially liked his points about extending transit operating hours to 3am, adding light rail infill stations, and inter-neighborhood shuttle bugs. Having lived in Hampden for a few months now, I can say the neighborhood is a transit desert and needs better connections to Johns Hopkins and downtown. Baltimore has been car-focused for so long that we have to make transit twice as good to attract more choice riders. Small improvements which show MTA cares about quality are a first step. Also, may it’s time to rethink the entire bus network like Portland did in 1982.
20 MPH Neighborhood Zones
Drivers in this town love 2 things: Speed, and messing with their cell phones while driving. Neighborhoods and speeding/distracted drivers don’t mix. NYC has had huge success with their 20 mph zones, and for good reason. This often cited pedestrian fatality chart, Dan Burden’s case studies, Donald Appleyard’s research, and a plethora of other projects show the huge benefits which accrue when traffic is tamed to reasonable levels. Fewer and less severe auto accidents, fewer pedestrian injuries and fatalities, more opportunities for positive street life, and less traffic noise. It’s literally all upside and no downside. 20 MPH zones mean reducing posted speed limits and targeted enforcement, but also include…
This includes everything from building out our bike network, adding pedestrian lighting so our streets look less post-apocalyptic at night, road diets/traffic calming, street trees, and everything else I’m forgetting to mention. Most of these things don’t even require full reconstruction – they can be done in strategic ways at minimal cost.
Small Public Plazas
Have you been to Pittsburgh? I talk about this place a lot. I guess you could say I have a crush on the town. They’ve mastered the art of small public plazas. Where vacuums between buildings used to exist, now there’s interactive art, educational kiosks, people eating their noodle salad, real children and overgrown children playing hopscotch, and lots of green space. Baltimore has to get over its fear of creating comfortable, fun public spaces. By making plazas attractive for all people, you create a critical mass of positive activity, and the “feel” of the street shifts from something abandoned and dangerous to something inviting and full of life. This all ties into an overarching goal, which is:
Positive Street Life
Everything I’ve said up to this point supports this final thing. Getting off the train from DC into downtown Baltimore is disheartening and a buzz kill. Aside from the sorry state of Penn Station, most of this has to do with how abandoned our streets are, even during lunch and dinner hours. Streets are people’s first impression of a city, and when they’re filled solely with cars rushing by on wide one way streets at 45mph, it says something negative about our city. Go to NYC. Go to Philly. Go to DC or even parts of Pittsburgh and see how their streets are also outdoor performance theaters, playgrounds, cultural conduits, window shopping opportunities, and bicycle skyways. A quality street does more than one thing well. A street that does many things well becomes magical.
And finally, more of this.
A few words of encouragement if you’ve ever been the only non-traffic engineer in a room full of traffic engineers.
- It’s OK to question Level of Service and traffic volume projections. They’ve often been wrong before. They will be wrong again.
- It’s OK to advocate for narrower lanes.
- It’s OK to use the phrases “fast”, “anti-urban” and “does not meet livability goals” when describing one way couplets.
- Protected bike lanes are no longer radical ideas, even if they mean taking traffic lanes away from automobiles.
- Your intuition is correct. Sharrows on high volume streets are dangerous and should not be used just to placate cyclists.
- Full time on-street parking is not an impediment to traffic flow, even on urban arterials. It’s a retail-booster and a revenue generating traffic calming device.
- It’s OK to talk about big picture things when the conversation focuses on minutia.
- It’s OK to expect something exceptional and transformational from a project.
- It’s OK to suggest that the project engineers actually walk or bike on the street they are designing.
- It’s OK to question neighborhood design speeds in excess of 20mph, the 85% percentile rule, intersection geometrics and clear zones, even if you’re not an engineer.
- Aesthetics are just as important as function. Signal poles, bus stops, sidewalks, and the entire streetscape are as much a part of urban design as buildings and parks.
…learning how to make cities rich and fecund and great places to be so we’re comfortable and healthy and happy is the biggest problem we face. The only way we’ll not go crazy is to build beautiful, rich, life-enhancing cities….The majority of open spaces in cities are streets. That means the street system is too important to leave solely to transportation engineers. They’re way too important to leave to just moving traffic. So I’m interested in cities because they are the design problem for a habitable planet. – Laurie Olin
Keep on going.
Cycling is often promoted as a neighborhood revitalization tool and sustainable transportation option, but it’s easy to forget that it’s a public health and safety issue too. Every block of protected bike lane is a subtle yet important victory: A possible heart attack prevented. An automobile crash avoided. A day of feeling good being physically active instead of sitting in traffic.
There’s enough information available about the benefits of cycling that it amazes me that every city in the country isn’t making this stuff a priority. Even places that do get it sometimes have to be prodded a bit. Check out East Harlem, NYC:
This is the story about how East Harlem residents and street safety advocates — with leadership from Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito — banded together to win complete streets on First and Second Avenues. After the city backtracked on a plan to build protected bike lanes and pedestrian refuges up to 125th Street on the East Side of Manhattan, this coalition mobilized to put the project back on the table. Later, when the safety improvements came under attack from a few business owners, public health professionals joined Mark-Viverito and NYC DOT to combat misinformation about the redesign and see it through to implementation. Source: Street Films